Brendan McGetrick
Recent works and current obsessions

Why Wang Shu

Could it be coincidence that in the same year that the Oscar for best picture goes to a silent film, architecture’s top prize goes to a designer who disdains computers and claims “craftsmen are smarter than architects”? Was the Pritzker committee struck with the same guilty feelings that apparently inspired the Academy to, at long last, acknowledge the massive backward leap from Billy Wilder to James Cameron? Is the selection of Wang Shu, a noncommercial, nonfamous architect, as 2012 Laureate an attempt to absolve architecture of its greed and vanity and restore its self-image as a serious, civic-minded profession?

This is not a good time to be a great architect. Having achieved the rank of b-list celebrity during the boom years, architecture’s leading figures now bare the mark of the bubble. The public views them with suspicion; we recognize that architects no longer work for us. Fame has eroded their influence, delivering reverence but draining respect. In a time of crisis architects are not consulted. Despite their sensitivity, their awareness of history, despite the fact that they are at the center of a dozen different professions, even Pritzker winners find themselves out of the loop.

Nowhere is this condition more acute than in China, the land of infinite square meters and claustrophobic schedules. “Architect” is a relatively new concept in the PRC and, having evolved with the process of reform and opening up, the Chinese architect is generally considered an assistant to the policy’s main actors – government officials and entrepreneurs. His passive-aggressive role in the erasure of old, idiosyncratic cities and construction of new, generic megacities, undermines the local architect’s credibility and, by implication, the importance of architecture itself.

Since founding Amateur Architecture Studio fifteen years ago, Wang Shu has oriented his practice in opposition to China’s epic urbanization. In a lecture last year at Harvard, he explained the rationale: “In the past twenty five years, [China] did an incredible thing… One country with three to five thousand years of history, with such rich cultural and traditional things… made a big decision to demolish it. Ninety percent, just in the past twenty-five years. They do this and then build some new things; they copy from all over the world… It’s the professional urban planner and architect who did this disaster. They do this with the government together. And so I think maybe we need another kind of architect.”

This other architect is Wang’s Amateur, a romantic figure inspired by the past, agitated by the present, hopeful for the future, active and critical of Chinese commercial culture. She is experimental and thorough. She’s critical of the idea that modernity exists in winner-take-all opposition to the past. In the Amateur’s view, Modern is simply a division in a vast catalogue of materials and techniques at the designer’s disposal. In one of Wang’s key statements, the architect explains the Amateur’s output:

Amateur architecture is unimportant architecture. One of the problems of professional architecture is that it takes architecture itself too seriously. Building is more basic than architecture: it is closely associated to contemporary life, it is simple, often trivial. Before I became an architect, I was firstly a literati – architectural design was only my free time activity. What’s more important than architecture itself is the cultural atmosphere of the place; what’s more important than technology is the brilliant language, norms, and ideas in simple craft construction.

There was once a time — before reform, before the boom — when significant building projects in China were the product of an intimate relationship between craftsman and scholar. They shared a high level of trust and an almost unimaginable tolerance for ambiguity. Craftsmen rendered in physical space ideas expressed to them through poems and abstract paintings. Their primary task was not to produce substance but atmosphere, to manipulate matter in pursuit of the immaterial, and in this effort they exercised broad freedoms to interpret and experiment.

Wang Shu’s work is part of this tradition. His Amateur is closer in ideology to the scholars of the past than architects of today. He designs beautiful concepts that result in odd buildings. He makes sketches, chooses materials, defines dynamics, and then leaves the execution to amateurs who reinterpret his vision according to their desires and abilities. “In the construction process, you’ll find that the workers have added their own techniques,” Wang once told me as we toured his signature work, the Ningbo History Museum. “For example, they arranged the bricks in a traditional pattern from clothes. I didn’t tell them to do this, but they understood how, and they did it.” Did he mind? “No. I like this process: you start with a certain kind of thinking, but as it progresses, you can’t control the result completely, but the result is still controlled. I think this is very near traditional Chinese philosophy — how to balance nature and human beings’ abilities.”

Within our current environment of information excess, ever elevating resolution levels, infinite storage space and decreasing memory, there is something about Wang Shu’s embrace of imprecision that feels heroic. He is a proxy from the analog past, seemingly sent to earth to remind us that the best way to innovate is to understand the ancient. In explaining his work, he offers poems and references landscape paintings. On a tour, he sounds less like an architect than a guide in a nature reserve. He speaks of valleys, caves, lakes. When we reached the Ningbo Museum’s high point, a platform where the building splits into five jagged pieces, he said, “When I designed this, I was thinking of mountains. I couldn’t design something for the city, because there is no city here yet, so I wanted to do something that had life.”

The fact that the Museum is not aesthetically beautiful – from certain angles it is utterly clumsy – somehow doesn’t diminish its appeal. Against the backdrop of the contemporary Chinese city, with its endless articulations of newness, craziness, Westernness, strength and luxury and suffering, Wang’s commitment to craft and apparent indifference to commercial sensibilities can feel exhilarating. His is an experiential architecture. It doesn’t photograph well, because it preferences feel over look. It can’t be rendered because it is low res by design. In Wang Shu’s buildings the lines between in and out, dark and light, built and natural blur. In our hypermediated high contrast age, when architecture often feels like an extension of set design, he offers stimulating atmospheres instead of impressive backdrops.

In some ways, Wang Shu’s Pritzker feels premature. There are certainly other deserving designers with longer careers, more influential arguments, more accomplished apprentices, etc. The recipient himself seemed to acknowledge this in his official response — “It’s a big surprise. I’m still so young!” But Wang Shu’s work amounts to more than a single studio’s output. It represents a civilization’s cumulative culture, dozens of philosophical and artistic traditions from high and low, many of which have been overwhelmed in China’s frantic drive to modernize. Despite the fact that the Pritzker committee made frequent use of the future tense in explaining their choice — “The fact that an architect from China has been selected by the jury represents a significant step in acknowledging the role that China will play in the development of architectural ideals” — in honoring Wang Shu’s work, the committee tacitly acknowledges this cultural legacy and, by extension, China’s undervalued contribution to architectural history. It is an inspired choice, one that shines a cold light on the excesses of contemporary urban design and offers the chance for re-orientation.

Originally published on domusweb.